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MGG: Malaysia's Grand Old Man Turns 80
By M.G.G. Pillai

24/3/2002 1:51 am Sun

Malaysia's Grand Old Man turned 80 on Friday, 22 March 2002. Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, hale and hearty if a little frail, is one of Malaysia's forgotten men, consigned to today's dustheap, but none there is involved in every aspect of independent Malaysia from its earliest days. His great intellect and talent was tempered with his equally great arrogance and faults. This Jekyll-and-Hyde side of his character made him distrusted amongst politicians, and unsuitable as prime minister.

He is one of those men whose strength is on the side of whoever is in power, for he is, like most of his ilk, unelectable where it matters. This caused him to lose his place in the Mahathir cabinet shortly after the transition in 1981. The prime minister dislikes being challenged, and Tan Sri Ghazali's frequent interjections made him increasingly a lone voice. There is also no love lost between them, not after his unwise attempts to be made deputy prime minister shortly before Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed was. He is now a lone voice, increasingly frustrated at political twists and turns of his beloved country, utterly helpless at what he sees as the decline of everything he fought for.

But the affection he enjoys amongst those who came into contact is enormous, as evident last night at the "Sentidos Tapas" restaurant in the Starhill Shopping Centre in Jalan Bukit Bintang. It was a gathering of the forgotten men of Malaysia's recent history, interspersed with those of more recent vintage. The Yang Dipertuan Negara of Negri Sembilan, Tuanku Jafar ibni Almarhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the former Yang Dipertuan Agung, was there: as he pointed out, as a career diplomat, he was one of King Ghaz's boys. The deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, rushed from Penang to attend. The information minister, Tan Sri Khalil Yaakob, like King Ghaz from Pahang, was there, as was the Sultan's brother, Tengku Abdullah. There was Tan Sri Shariff Ahmad who, in great magnanimity resigned from the cabinet so Tan Sri Ghazali could remain. But it only postponed his exit by two years.

Mr Des Alwi, the adopted son of an early Indonesian prime minister, Mr Sutan Shahrir, and who worked the hardest to end confrontation, was there, all of 75 years, the bon vivant he is. As those in Wisma Putra, all now retired and all deeply beholden to King Ghaz: Dato' Albert Talala, Mr Jack De Silva, Tun Haniff Omar. There was Tan Sri Rama Iyer, former federal court judge Dato' Zakaria Yatim, former court of appeal judge Dato' N.H. Chan, the former chief minister of Sabah, Tan Sri Harris Salleh, Dato' Herman Luping, Dato' Joseph Kurup, and numerous others. As the high commissioners of the United Kingdom, Singapore, Brunei and the ambassador of Indonesia.

I was there, like the others, a friend: we started off on the wrong foot more than 30 years ago that he once seriously considered me, as he told me decades later, for detention under the Internal Security Act. I still meet him often to argue about issues of the day, discuss the latest books we have read, and into Malaysia's unwritten history, and come away with more than I had when I came in. His long years of public service, his wide reading, his serious thinking of issues of the day all provide an experience I do not have. Perhaps we get along because few do call on him nowadays, but I genuinely enjoy our visits, perhaps more than he. He is for me a philosopher-in-residence to learn from. His mind is as agile as ever, though he is now frail though not infirm by any means.

I shall not attempt to list here his unerasable achievements. If I did, I could barely scratch the surface. He is a man of the past without whom Malaysia would not be what or where it is. His arrogance prevented him from greater heights, but I know of few who would not give an arm and a leg to bask in the glory of what he has achieved. I once discussed with him if he would have preferred to end his career at the height of his powers, when the plane he was piloting crash landed and for a few days he was presumed dead, in 1978, or now. He has that rare acuity of mind to look at himself in history's shadow, and he thought it would have been better for his reputation had he had died then. I disagree, for what he did, in small ways and out of the public eye and out of the cabinet and parliament, is of such importance that Malaysia would have been the poorer for that.

Yesterday was a gathering of friends to honour a man the likes of whom we would not meet again in a long time. The talk was light, the conversation congenial, the food excellent, the insights of history, since I was sandwiched between Mr Des Alwi and Tan Sri Harris, and the Indonesian ambassador across the table, both delightful and insightful. The gossip on such occasions is a class of its own, interspersing history with the mundane of recent vintage.

It is a pity the practitions of real politik do not write their account of the behind the scenes of history. I had, from Mr Des Alwi, a humane portrait of Malaysia's four prime ministers, the private man against the prim austere public face. The dinner lasted into the night, and when Tuanku Jaffar left, it was past midnight. A small crowd stayed on long past their bedtime bedtime. We could have done no less for a man who though forgotten history cannot forget. He did not attain what he aimed for, but he is the architect of that. We are glad to be his friends.

M.G.G. Pillai